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How the Holy Land became the world’s obsession

A Palestinian argues with an Israeli soldier in Jerusalem's Old City - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Former BBC Gaza reporter JAMES RODGERS on why the region’s conflict has suffered from the world picking sides

It is a part of the world still blighted by the scars of empire, the meddling of other states and the failures of its own leaders. And, with wearying familiarity, this month violence has broken out once more.

As troops mobilise against irregular forces, civilians are again paying the price: hundreds have been forced from their homes, a mosque has been raided, and the death toll is mounting. To compound the tragedy, no one seriously expects the latest developments to lead to a meaningful resolution. There is simply the expectation of more bloodshed to come.

It might sound like a familiar narrative, yet this is not the Middle East, but the eastern Congo, a region which has suffered perhaps more than any other in recent decades. It suffers largely in silence. The conflict there is not the one dominating this month’s front pages, websites, and bulletins – nor prompting widely-reported calls for restraint from the seats of global power.

Instead, the world’s attention has been on Israel and the Palestinian territories: unrest in Jerusalem; airstrikes on Gaza; rockets aimed at Tel Aviv; riots in cities where the two communities live uneasily together. While the images of terrified civilians seeking shelter from bombardment have rightly been shared across the world, the death toll is significantly lower than those in recent months in Congo, or, for that matter, Ethiopia, or Afghanistan.

So why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attract the attention it does? Why does this fight for land and faith have such significance far beyond the small strip of land where battle is joined? And is it a healthy obsession, or is the global fascination with the conflict one of the factors making a peaceful and just settlement so difficult?

The truth is that the dispute has always been a ‘global’ concern. An answer to why that is begins with a conversation with an elderly neighbour in a street where I used to live in west London. When, discussing living abroad, I mentioned that I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza, my neighbour replied, “Gaza? I was 19 years old, and I was in charge of the railway station.” He had been on national service in the Middle East in 1946, as British control over Palestine – known as the Mandate – neared its end.

Looking one afternoon at the book of remembrance in my local church, I learnt that the men from my area had spent part of the First World War helping to capture Jerusalem from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The next time I was in Jerusalem, I found some of their graves: neat rows on a hillside overlooking the ancient city below.

The empire they served is long gone, but Israel’s creation as the sun set on the British empire ensured it was, from its earliest days, a focus of global attention, and the interest of states from far beyond the region. Once Britain was no longer the leading external power there, the United States quickly took over. Washington was the first to recognise the state of Israel – a matter of minutes after the new nation’s leaders had declared their own statehood.

Where Britain once deployed tens of thousands of troops, the US has spent billions on military aid to Israel. The current agreement, covering the years 2019-2028, foresees funding of $38 billion.

No other country has had more aid from the US since the Second World War and for decades the conflict in the Middle East was subsumed in the wider Cold War, with Israel’s foes supported by the Soviet Union. Being such a highly-favoured and strategic ally of the US, inevitably put the region deeper into the spotlight.

Diplomacy and global focus may have waned after the first decade of this century, when Washington led international plans to make peace. Yet the fact that even the ‘America first’ administration of Donald Trump put considerable effort building bridges between Israel and the Arab world – and enjoyed some success in the form of the Abraham Accords – shows that it remained a priority.

“It’s one of those places that any journalist worth their salt wanted to come and try their time in,” Crispian Balmer, Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem told me in an interview for my book, Headlines from the Holy Land. Dan Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, saw the conflict as a challenge that Washington’s top diplomats cannot resist. “That’s the allure to a secretary of state: the ‘I can do this’ when my predecessors did not.”

One of the reasons why so many diplomatic initiatives have failed is also a vital part of explaining the world’s fascination with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: religion. This present upsurge in fighting was sparked in part by Israeli security forces storming the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

That sacred place for Muslims stands above another for Jews: the western wall – sometimes called the ‘wailing wall’ – held to be the last extant part of the retaining wall of Jerusalem’s ancient temples. Both are but a short walk from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the sites where Christ is believed to have been crucified and buried.

The concentration of these places with such deep religious significance for Muslims, Jews, and Christians is another reason why the world pays such close attention to what unfolds between Israeli and Palestinian. Even a non-churchgoer like me felt an extra responsibility, and sense of occasion, reporting from Bethlehem at Christmas in 2002 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel.

Over the decades, as the the two sides’ struggles for statehood has been the focus of rapt global attention, the opposing causes have generated support and sympathy – or hatred – the world over.

Religion is one factor motivating people to take sides, but it is not the only one. Think of the nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, who have picked ‘teams’ in the Middle East to associate with their own causes. So people from those communities fly, respectively, Palestinian and Israeli flags, symbols also sometimes adopted by rival fans of Glasgow’s football clubs, Celtic and Rangers.

It is just one way in which the issue has become ingrained in the cultures of countries thousands of miles from the region. And having done so, it is now becoming an element of those country’s culture wars.

It has reached the point where the conflict is now a source of significant community tension in the UK, as evidenced by recent incidents of anti-Semitism linked to the latest crisis.

Migration has been one factor in the spread of the conflict around the globe, not just via the Palestinian and wider Arab diaspora, but also from the migration of Jews to Israel after the state was founded. I once interviewed a woman in west Jerusalem who celebrated Thanksgiving as she had in her native United States. She saw in the creation of the state of Israel a parallel with American settlers’ 19th century conquest of the West.

Those global ties endure through changing eras of politics and media technology, from the newspapers of the last century to the Twitter storms of today. They do so because so much of the world – even those who have never visited, and never will – feels a connection to the region.

Take a look at the replies to any tweet from the Israeli Army: a mixture of staunch support, and angry accusation. Such sectarianism from people who are not directly linked to the conflict creates an atmosphere where it is difficult for meaningful discussions on resolution to take place.

The land shared by Israel and the Palestinian territories is so tied up in the faiths and histories of the warring sides that its value is far beyond what it offers economically or agriculturally: it is also spiritual and political.

That is why it continues to be a global obsession: not simply its uniqueness, but its universality. There is something in this land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean that so many people in so many other parts of the world can relate to their own lives: their beliefs, triumphs, and disasters.

And therein lies part of the tragedy. While the conflict is viewed, from outside, through this prism of religion and international interpretation it becomes a proxy for other disputes, and its local complexities are often obscured.

The world is rightly concerned at events there and the terrible costs on the civilian populations – especially on the Palestinian side. That concern is so often built on existing views that today it’s unclear from where a neutral broker might emerge. From social media to foreign embassies, this is a conflict where so many have already picked their side. 

Congo’s suffering in silence is clearly not the answer. But sadly for the Holy Land, the world’s fascination with what unfolds there has not delivered an end to the cycle of tragedy.

James Rodgers was BBC correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. He is the author of two books in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: No Road Home, and Headlines from the Holy Land

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